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Popular Red and White Wine Grape Varieties
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 21, 2021
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Over 10,000 grape varieties exist, but only a very small percentage of them have made the cut as popular wine grapes.  To almost no one’s surprise, the most grown wine grape in the world is Cabernet Sauvignon.  Total acreage of the world’s vineyards destined for Cabernet Sauvignon wine production is about 16 million acres!  

Of the 10,000+ grape varieties, the 13 most popular varieties are planted on one-third of the world’s vineyards.  Naturally, it is easier to sell wines when people know the grape varieties.  Although there is a trend among some producers to search out old, forgotten grape varieties, such as the recently revived white grape variety, Timorasso, in Piedmont, Italy, the most popular grape varieties clearly dominate world wine production.

Here are the ten most popular wine grape varieties, in order of production size:

1.    Cabernet Sauvignon (840,000 acres)
2.    Merlot (657,300 acres
3.    Tempranillo (570,800 acres)
4.    Airén (538,700 acres)
5.    Chardonnay 518,900 acres)
6.    Syrah (470,000 acres)
7.    Grenache (402,780 acres)
8.    Sauvignon Blanc (290,000 acres)
9.    Pinot Noir (285,000 acres)
10.  Trebbiano Toscano /Ugni Blanc (274, 300 acres)

Some comments on the list above:

Three of the above grapes, Airén, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, are white grapes; the other seven are red.  One might think that Chardonnay, the largest-selling varietal wine in the U.S. and popular throughout the world, would clearly be the most popular white grape, to say the least, but it is edged out by Spain’s white grape, Airén.  The latter is the leading white grape variety in Spain, used mainly in Spain’s inexpensive white wine production. 

Tempranillo dominates Spain’s red wine production.  Merlot is popular throughout the world; it is the most-planted variety in France, for instance. Sauvignon Blanc dominates New Zealand’s wine production, but does not do as well in the rest of the world. 

Italy’s Trebbiano, used mainly in that country’s lesser whites, is the same variety as France’s Ugni Blanc, where its bland character is exactly what is needed in making France’s great Cognacs.  The superb Pinot Noir variety, the grape of red Burgundy, only thrives in particular, cooler areas, which accounts for its limited production.

You might wonder why Italy—which, along with France, leads the world in wine production—only garners a 10th place finish in the world’s leading wine grape production, and even then it has to share its 10th place finish with Ugni Blanc of France.  The reason is that Italy grows so many different varieties (about 300) that none dominate.  For example, Sangiovese, Italy’s most planted variety, takes up a mere 8 percent of Italy’s vineyards.  And one of my two favorite grape varieties, Nebbiolo (the other favorite being Pinot Noir), takes up less than 8 percent of Italy’s Piedmont vineyards, where the popular Barbera grape far outgrows it.

This information on the world’s leading wine grapes might place your next varietal wine purchase in a new light.  I hope you found it interesting.  I know that I found it fun to write about.      

More wine columns:     Ed McCarthy